A 2019 Guide to Understanding Vicodin Addiction

Learn about this Opioid Painkiller that has a high risk for abuse

What is Vicodin?

Vicodin is an opioid painkiller used to treat moderate to severe pain. A trade name for the opioid hydrocodone, Vicodin works by reducing the intensity of pain signals traveling to the brain. It, like all opioid painkillers, is derived from morphine, which is found in certain species of the poppy plant. Opioids produce intense euphoria, which is one reason why they’re so commonly abused.

Americans account for just five percent of the world’s population, but we consume 75 percent of its prescription drugs. Eighty-one percent of the world’s oxycodone and 100 percent of the world’s hydrocodone are prescribed to Americans. It’s no wonder that an estimated 2.5 million Americans are addicted to opioids, including Vicodin

Why People Abuse Vicodin and Other Opioids

People who abuse opioids typically have underlying risk factors for addiction. These risk factors can lead to heavy opioid abuse, which can, in turn, lead to addiction and dependence. The most common risk factors for opioid abuse and addiction are pain, chronic stress, trauma and mental illness.

Pain

Around 25 million American adults experience chronic pain at any given time, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The 2012 National Health Survey found that two-thirds of people who abuse opioid painkillers do so in an attempt to reduce their pain. Only 10 percent of respondents reported abusing opioids to get high.

Chronic Stress

Poverty, abuse, illness and other negative life situations can cause chronic stress, which can lead to serious medical problems including high blood pressure and heart disease. Some people who abuse opioids do so to help them relax and reduce feelings of stress. Unfortunately, opioids actually interfere with the body’s ability to cope with high levels of stress, and heavy abuse causes problems that increase overall stress in the long run.

Trauma

Trauma changes the structures and functions of the brain in important ways. It increases the body’s stress response and can lead to insomnia, nightmares, fear, anger and other negative effects. A history of trauma may lead to opioid abuse in an attempt to numb emotional pain, experience positive emotions, promote sleep and stave off nightmares.

Mental Illness

Around half of all people who engage in substance abuse suffer from a mental illness like anxiety or depression. Opioids can seem to reduce symptoms of mental illness in the moment, but they almost always worsen the symptoms in the long-term. Additionally, opioid abuse can cause the onset of a mental illness that didn’t previously exist.

Vicodin Abuse, Addiction and Dependence

Abuse

Vicodin abuse is the act of using the drug in a way other than exactly as prescribed by a physician. Substance abuse in general is defined as using drugs or alcohol in a way that causes problems in your life, including legal, financial, relationship or health problems. Abusing opioids can lead to dependence and addiction.

Dependence

People who are dependent on Vicodin will experience withdrawal symptoms when they suddenly stop using it. Dependence is caused by changes in the brain as a result of heavy drug abuse. These changes occur as the brain alters its chemical function in order to compensate for the presence of the drug.

This causes tolerance, which means you need higher and higher doses of a drug to get the same effects. Brain function may shift at some point so that the brain is more comfortable when the drug is present. When drug use stops, normal chemical function resumes, and the resulting shift in neurotransmitter activity causes physical withdrawal symptoms.

Addiction

People who are addicted to Vicodin find that they can’t stop using it, even though it’s causing problems in their life and even though they may want or try to quit. This compulsive drug abuse is the result of changes in brain function related to the memory, reward, and learning centers of the brain.

Dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure, plays a key role in these brain areas. Dopamine is designed to keep the species alive by making us want to engage in the activities that produce pleasure, such as eating, exercise and helping others. Dopamine is carefully regulated by the brain, but when opioids are introduced, the dopamine rush is nearly ten times greater than what can occur naturally.

As a result, the brain’s reward circuit is hijacked. The brain learns that taking the drug will produce this intense pleasure, and soon, certain environmental cues will trigger cravings for the drug. These cravings are extremely powerful and drive compulsive use.

Addiction affects your thought and behavior patterns and leads to dysfunctional ways of thinking and behaving, which further perpetuate the addiction. Addiction almost always causes problems, but the desire to end the drug abuse is rarely enough to help stop use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, once an addiction develops, it almost always requires professional help to overcome.1

Signs of a Substance Use Disorder

Drug abuse, addiction and dependence are now officially diagnosed under the umbrella term “substance use disorder,” which is classified as mild, moderate or severe, depending on how many of the 11 criteria you meet. The criteria apply to past-year use and are as follows:

Substance Use Disorder Categories

Mild: by meeting two to three of the following criteria

Moderate: by meeting four or five criteria

Severe: by meeting six or more of the criteria

  1. Using the substance in ways that puts you or others in dangerous situations
  2. Experiencing relationship problems related to the substance abuse
  3. Neglecting responsibilities at home, work or school because of your substance abuse
  4. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using suddenly
  5. Needing increasingly larger doses to get the same effect
  6. Abusing drugs or alcohol for a longer period of time or in larger amounts than you intended
  7. Wanting or trying to cut down or quit but finding you can’t
  8. Spending a lot of time using or recovering from using drugs or alcohol
  9. Experiencing physical or mental health problems as a result of your substance abuse
  10. Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  11. Experiencing cravings for the substance

Whether you have a mild, moderate or severe substance use disorder, treatment can help you end your drug abuse once and for all and restore your life.

%

Of people who take opioid painkillers reported abusing opioids to get high

Treating Vicodin Dependence with Medical Detox

Opioid withdrawal isn’t particularly dangerous, but it can be excruciating enough that quitting without support may be next to impossible. Not everyone experiences all of the possible symptoms of Vicodin withdrawal, and symptoms can range in intensity from mild to severe.

Medical detox is a detox option that’s available through high quality treatment programs. Medical detox helps you withdraw from Vicodin successfully, safely and comfortably.

During medical detox, medical and mental health professionals will provide medications to reduce the intensity of symptoms and shorten the duration of detox. Symptoms of opioid withdrawal are flulike in nature and include a runny nose, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Agitation and insomnia may occur, and intense cravings add to the overall discomfort.

High quality detox facilities typically offer complementary therapies like restorative yoga, massage therapy or acupuncture to help increase comfort and improve feelings of well being during withdrawal.

Detox is always the first step of treatment. During detox, a variety of assessments help care providers develop an individualized, comprehensive treatment plan that addresses all of your needs and issues. Once detox is complete, treatment for the addiction begins.

Treating Vicodin Dependence with Medication-Assisted Treatment

An alternative to medical detox for treating an opioid use disorder is medication-assisted treatment, which is currently the gold standard for treating opioid dependence and addiction, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.​​​2

Medication-assisted treatment is a combination of medication and therapy that has been shown to:

  • Increase engagement in addiction treatment
  • Increase social functioning
  • Reduce the risk of overdose death
  • Reduce the risk of relapse
  • Reduce illegal opioid abuse and related criminal activity
  • Reduce infections of hepatitis C and HIV
  • Improve the chances of finding and keeping a job
  • Improve outcomes for pregnant women and their babies

Although there’s a common misconception that medication-assisted treatment is just replacing one addiction with another, this simply isn’t true. Just as medications can be used to manage the symptoms of other chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, it can be used to manage addiction and dependence.

The medications used in medication-assisted treatment reduce cravings and help restore normal brain function so that people can better focus on developing the skills required for successful recovery. Three medications are approved by the FDA for use with medication-assisted treatment for opioids.

Methadone

Methadone has been used since the 1950s to treat opioid addiction. It’s an opioid agonist, which means that it affects the same receptors that opioids like heroin and Vicodin act on. This means that methadone has similar psychoactive effects as other opioids, but the effects are weaker and more gradual. Methadone blocks cravings and prevents the onset of withdrawal.

Since methadone has a high potential for abuse, it’s only available as a daily dose administered at a clinic or doctor’s office. This makes it inconvenient for many, and it reduces the chances that someone will stick to their treatment plan.

Buprenorphine

Buprenorphine was approved by the FDA in 2002 for use with medication-assisted treatment. As a partial opioid agonist, buprenorphine will produce the same effects as full agonists, but the effects are far weaker than those of methadone and other opioids. Buprenorphine reduces cravings and helps brain function return to normal. It has a ceiling effect, so taking more of the drug won’t increase its psychoactive effects. Because it has a lower potential for abuse than methadone, it can be prescribed and taken at home.

Naltrexone

Approved by the FDA in 2010 for medication-assisted treatment, naltrexone is an opioid antagonist, which means it blocks the euphoric effects of opioids and reduces cravings. It’s available in a daily pill or as a monthly injection. Unlike methadone and buprenorphine, which can be started immediately, naltrexone can only be taken once all traces of opioids are out of your system, which means you’ll need to go through medical detox before you start the medication.

The medications used with medication-assisted treatment help reduce cognitive problems associated with opioid addiction and dependence, including problems with memory, concentration and decision-making. Some people will wean off the medication after a few months, while some will stay on it for several years. Others may take it for the rest of their lives

Treating Vicodin Addiction

Once detox is complete or medication-assisted treatment has begun, attention turns to treating the addiction. Following detox with treatment is central to successful recovery. A study published in the Irish Medical Journal found that 91 percent of clients participating in an opioid detox program not followed by treatment ended up relapsing, with 59 percent turning back to opioids within a week of leaving detox.​​​3  However, participants in the study who entered a treatment program either didn’t relapse or their relapse was delayed significantly.

Treating an addiction is far more complex than treating dependence. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol almost always have underlying issues that contributed to the substance abuse, and addiction causes numerous problems in your life, which can further perpetuate the addiction. A high quality treatment program will address all of an individual’s unique issues and needs through a variety of therapies, services and interventions. Because addiction leads to dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns, re-learning to think and behave in healthy ways is central to successful recovery.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a holistic approach to treatment provides whole-person healing and has better treatment outcomes. A holistic approach is one that addresses a person’s multiple physical, mental and spiritual issues.

Traditional therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy and complementary therapies like art therapy help individuals in treatment:

  • Develop the skills they need to cope with relapse triggers like stress and negative emotions
  • Address the underlying causes of the addiction
  • Identify dysfunctional ways of thinking and behaving and learn healthier thought and behavior patterns
  • Repair relationships that were damaged by the addiction
  • Restore all areas of life
  • Find purpose and meaning in a life without drugs
  • Learn to have fun and relax without drugs

The ultimate goal of treatment is to empower people to work through their problems, change their lives and remove the need for substance abuse.

%

Of people turned back to opioids within a week of leaving detox

Why People Don’t Seek Treatment

Fewer than 10 percent of people with an addiction seek professional help to overcome it. However, getting help is almost always essential for successful long-term recovery. People cite a variety of reasons why they avoid getting help for an addiction:

  • The cost of treatment
  • Fear that treatment won’t work for them
  • Fear of what life will be like without drugs or alcohol
  • Fear of going through withdrawal
  • Fear of what others will think
  • Fear of losing friends
  • Fear of losing their job

These are common, reasonable fears, but without help, the addiction will likely progress. But without help, an opioid addiction will worsen, and it can easily end your life.

Opioids and Overdose Risk

Abusing any opioid, including Vicodin, puts you at a high risk for overdose. Opioid overdose claims 115 lives every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which cites opioid abuse as the number-one cause of preventable death among 18- to 35-year-olds.​​​4 Opioids have an effect on the part of the brain that controls breathing, and in high doses, they can quickly cause respiratory depression and death.

The “opioid overdose triad” are the three major symptoms of opioid overdose:

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Unconsciousness
  • Slowed breathing or no breathing

The risk of opioid overdose is particularly high when alcohol or benzodiazepines are also in your system. Anyone who uses or knows someone who uses opioids, including those who take them as prescribed, should have naloxone on hand. Naloxone, known commonly by the trade name Narcan, is an opioid antagonist. It knocks opioids out of the opioid receptors, effectively reversing the overdose.

Naloxone, dubbed the “overdose reversal drug,” is widely available without a prescription at larger pharmacies, although some states may have restrictions on who can buy it.

Treatment Saves Lives

Ending an addiction to Vicodin isn’t easy, but then, neither is maintaining an addiction. Rehab works for most people who engage with their treatment plan, and it can help you reclaim your life and restore your health. Treatment can help you overcome even a severe opioid addiction once and for all, improving your quality of life and sense of wellbeing for the long-term.

Resources

  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction
  2. https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/treatment
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20669601
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6712a1.htm